If you like any number of instrumental bands that are guitar-focused and make music that works with density, intensity, crescendos and the like, it’s entirely possible they would not exist (or would exist in significantly different form) if not for The Ascension. But, and here one of the ugly secrets of history rears its head, if you like any number of those bands (anyone, depending on which parts you emphasize, from Noxagt to Russian Circles to MONO to Mogwai) and you’re just getting around to listening to The Ascension now, it may seem like it has lost most of its power.
In 1981, even though others like Rhys Chatham may have broadly been working in the same mode as Branca (well, Chatham was originally upset by Branca tagging along, possibly; now Chatham composes works for 400 guitars, but he’s clearly after something very different than just this album times 100), but he was certainly one of the more prominent voices, and certainly the one most loudly insisting that this wasn’t modern composition or some avant-garde thing, it was rock music. Instrumentally, it’s hard to argue with him; four guitars, a bass, and a drum kit might differ from the standard rock arrangement quantitatively, but not qualitatively.
And when The Ascension works best, you can hear the rock strain coming through compositionally too. “The Spectacular Commodity” might spend the first five minutes acting like it’s testing each note on the guitars to make sure they’re all firing on all cylinders, but when the riffs actually gel the result is more motorik than Reichian minimalism (although it partakes of both). The perfectly titled “Lightfield (In Consonance)” is the best thing here, a straight eight-minute sprint uphill towards transcendence also sounds kind of like it could have been cut straight from a Television concert. While both “The Spectacular Commodity” and the title track take a little longer to get to the point than a lot of Branca’s descendants (because if you heard this record and you loved the heights it hit, it’s not exactly crazy to want to do the same thing but get there even faster) but you could also argue that those parts are the guitar rock equivalent of the first hour of the Deer Hunter, necessary to give the later drama greater impact.
There is, of course, the slight issue that a lot of art that was trying, simply, to go further than everything else at the time has as it ages. Branca may or may not have been trying to set the parameters for a subgenre or what have you, but he managed to accomplish that very thing. And since then, partly because they were starting from this far out, a lot of people have managed to go much further in various directions than Branca. But, of course, there are plenty of pioneers whose work we still appreciate even though it’s now arguably been surpassed. And of course it’s also true that going in one particular direction further than Branca’s early work misses out on the other dimensions something like The Ascension has. The way “Lesson No. 2” seems to rigorously pick itself apart only to crash back to life, or “Structure”’s tightly structured pocket apocalypse.
The Ascension, in other words, doesn’t deserve to be listened to just because of its influence or place in history; instead it’s worth listening to because while it’s been built upon it’s never quite been superseded. Right now its hippest cultural cache is probably James Murphy paying homage to the Robert Longo cover art on the front of This Is Happening (because of course he did); it shouldn’t be.